Let’s put aside, for a moment, western Montana’s contentious history with forest land management. Let’s set apart all the years of bitter disputes, of locked-up litigation, of taxpayer money wasted fixing problems that should never have occurred in the first place.

What is truly best for Montana’s forests? Who are the best stewards of these lands?

The answers to the first question is as complex as the answer to the second is simple. We – all of us – are the stewards. The more people who are able to participate in land-management decisions, the better.

And that is why the collaborative approach so vigorously tested of late ought to prevail.

Many are following the fate of the Colt-Summit Project on the Lolo National Forest near Seeley Lake. The project relied on the collaborative model to reach a plan agreeable to the priniciple participants - including Pyramid Mountain Lumber, the Wilderness Society and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks – and supported by many others, including the Montana Logging Association and the National Wildlife Federation.

But two groups, Friends of the Wild Swan and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, objected to portions of the project. Last week, one of their claims stuck with U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who blocked the timber sale portion of the project after finding that the U.S. Forest Service did not sufficiently study the cumulative impacts of lynx in the affected area, as required by the National Environmentaal Policy Act.

Let’s stop again, and return to that complicated question: What is best for the forest?

The Forest Service should absolutely be made to follow the legal requirements described in detailed federal regulations and policy. If it did not go far enough in its analysis of the Colt-Summit’s impacts, then it is only right that the logging portion of the project be halted until further study can be done. Should that analysis show that the timber sale will harm endangered species, then disaster will have been averted. If not, then the sale and subsequent logging can proceed as planned.

In the meantime, other portions of the project that have not been challenged, such as rehabilitation and road removal, have already begun and will be allowed to continue. That, in a sense, can be considered progress.

But it was progress made despite – not because of – the involvement of the Friends of the Wild Swan and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which continue to complain that the process leading to these projects is either not collaborative enough or not viable at all. And that’s a shame, because while these groups may have input that would help lead to better forest management decisions, their perspective on the collaborate process would appear to be in nobody’s interest but their own.

Collaboration necessarily involves disagreement; that’s why there must be a willingness to give and take by all involved in order for it to work. It stands a better chance of working if those who have objections bring their concerns to the table early on instead of to the courtroom after the fact.

And by “working,” we don’t mean only that it helps the Forest Service avoid litigation, though that is certainly an important benefit. We meant that it results in managment decisions that most people would agree are best for the long-term health of the forests.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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